February 07, 2004

Scholarly death-match

While scholarship is often competitive, in the sense that professors commonly try to outdo one another for honors and recognition, occasionally this competition transforms itself into an actual battle.

(Oooh, you say. Warring professors. A little like celebrity boxing...)

This semester some of us are being treated to the "Hart/Fuller debate" about whether law is completely separable from morality. Hart, a positivist, says that it is, and Fuller, a natural-law theorist, says that it isn't. These two go back and forth over the course of a decade, accusing each other in articles and books of being--initially--mistaken and unclear, and--much later--of being"blind" and "bizarre."

It's fun to follow the debate, even for people who may not give two stones about the connection between law and morality.

This debate reminded me of another war that took place in the '90s about something you might also not care one way or the other about--whether the Hawaiians who killed Captain Cook thought he was a god or not.

On one side, you have an eminence grise of American anthropology, Marshall Sahlins. On the other side, an equally established fixture of the anthropology department at Princeton, Gananath Obeyesekere.

Most people think the first shot was fired by Obeyesekere, when he published a scathing criticism of Sahlins' widely-accepted account of Cook's demise. Sahlins had maintained that the Hawaiians thought Cook was a god, or at least a manifestation of one. They killed him in part because their own rituals mandated that the agricultural god Lono (a.k.a. Captain Cook) be killed by the war god Ku or Makihiki. Obeyesekere accused Sahlins of perpetuating the stereotypical view of native peoples as irrational, gullible, and prone to deification of white Europeans.

Sahlins, of course, couldn't just take this lying down. So he wrote a response which accused Obeyesekere of cultural imperialism in the name of political correctness. By attributing to the Hawaiians an essentially modern, Western outlook, Obeyesekere ignored what was uniquely different about their culture. This, of course, meant that Obeyesekere, not Sahlins, was the real cultural imperialist.

Of course, Obeyesekere had to include a response to Sahlins in an afterward inserted into later editions of his book.

So who won? Since I don't pretend to any knowledge of anthropology, I feel comfortable saying "I don't know." I tend to root for Sahlins since he's at the University of Chicago (and did his undergrad at Michigan), but I don't know how the anthropological community has judged this debate. One thing it has done, of course, is add it to the syllabus in "anthropological theory" courses.

As for Hart vs. Fuller, the general consensus is that Hart won that one. This isn't something I'm particularly happy about, but the reasons will have to wait for another post. . .

(More about Sahlins/Obeyesekere is here, here, here, and here.)

A picture of Obeyesekere (question: would you have the courage to argue with this man?)

Posted by Carey at February 7, 2004 10:39 PM
Comments

I've seen scholar-wars in biology a couple of times now. Fortunately, in this field we have a way to settle it: an experiment is designed where, if our side is right, we should get result X; if Professor Moriarty's side is right, we should see result Y. The lash is then vigorously applied to the orc-horde of grad students for six months or a year until the experiment is complete. The issue is settled (often by discovering result Z), a grudge is fostered, and they then move on to the next point of contention.

I can't even imagine how it is done in law or philosophy--everyone just settles into their office and writes and writes until one side drops dead of exhaustion?

Posted by: PZ Myers at February 8, 2004 08:49 AM

Like I say, it is the market of academic hubcaps...

And yes, this is a shameless attempt to get people over to my blog... :)

Posted by: Jordan at February 17, 2004 12:12 AM